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Artist Profiles

The Humus of Don Cherry

By Published: October 20, 2005
Berger paints a picture of Cherry as one who functioned on a level completely beyond most other musicians; he carried a pocket-sized transistor radio with him wherever he went, listening to music from the world over, practicing tunes from Turkish folk music to the Beatles constantly and incorporating them into his suites. Often, Cherry would show up to concerts and rehearsals playing his wood flutes and with a slew of newly-found songs committed to memory, leading the affably game ensemble through an hour-long suite, the themes of which may or may not have been known beforehand. Indeed, altoist Carlos Ward, a later associate of Cherry's who worked with the trumpeter and composer in various aggregations throughout the '70s, had one of his most telling moments as a soloist on Relativity Suite (JCOA, 1973) in a subsection called "Desireles," one that Ward felt seemed written exactly for him. "It could have been already named, because I didn't know. A lot of songs Don would bring in, maybe he has titles to them but he didn't say. There was one piece that he would bring to every gig [I played with him], and he'd bring a little bit more each time, but he never played the whole piece... it was a composition in progress." The Durium recording, which focuses on the actual "Togetherness" suite, displays a somewhat ragtag quality of 'practicing on the stand,' but indeed this was probably the most-rehearsed material in the group's repertoire, its multiple themes introduced at will by references in solos and calling upon familiarity and flexibility as much as instrumental prowess. It is entirely possible that the other four members of the group did not know what they were going to be playing for the recording date—Monk, highlife, or one of Cherry's tunes, it was all part of "Togetherness."

While Berger and Barbieri eventually became ensconced in the New York scene, the former going on to form the Creative Music Studio at Woodstock in 1968, Cherry split his time between Scandinavia (he kept a home in Sweden with his wife Mocqui and son Lanoo Eagle Eye) and the United States, convening orchestras and small groups for regular expansions and reworkings of "Togetherness," including those at the Baden-Baden New Jazz Meeting of 1968 (Eternal Rhythm, MPS) and in 1971 at the Berlin Jazz Days ("Humus," with the New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, on Actions, Philips), and a trio he led with bassist Johnny Dyani and Turkish drummer Okay Temiz. Cherry's music, while it had incorporated non-Western scales, began now to incorporate drones more regularlyh and making explicit use of instruments like the tamboura (going perhaps farther than a two-bass concept). Cherry, a collector of various wooden and metal flutes from Asia, also began using the doussn'gouni, a Malian stringed instrument he was exposed to while in Scandinavia. Ironically, some of the most interesting and effective uses of non-Western instruments were purely by kismet. For example, Joachim Berendt had a gamelan brought to Baden-Baden without telling Cherry, and insisted that it be used in the recording. Berger, Cherry and Swiss drummer Jaques Thollot were thus given the task of figuring out a way to incorporate them musically without proper understanding of how they are played, or even without proper mallets with which to play them. The high-pitched metallic tone that characterizes their sound on Eternal Rhythm is more greatly a result of 'making do' than sonic intent. In the hands of another ensemble, one has to wonder whether it would have come off at all.

In a way, all of "Togetherness" — the incorporation of a myriad of themes and instruments to a work in progress — would mean nothing if it were not done with human growth in mind. To be sure, incorporating such a wide-ranging lexicon into the 'jazz' or 'free jazz' framework is a start, but Cherry could not stop there. The live recordings of both his trio and "Humus" include a great amount of group-audience interaction, with Cherry teaching concertgoers the proper way to say the phrase 'Si Ta Ra Ma' (later revisited in full song form with Dutch percussionist Han Bennink on Don Cherry, BYG, 1971) as a way into the heart of the music itself. In another context, the sing-along might seem hokey, but here it is done with utmost sincerity at giving concertgoers the opportunity not to merely listen, but to learn and understand, whether or not they are formal musicians. At the Workshop Freie Musik in 1971, Cherry and the Peter Brötzmann Trio held a workshop entitled "Free Jazz and Children," in which approximately 200 children with no musical experience were brought into a semi-classroom situation with instruments and four improvisers. Granted, according to Brötzmann it was not a complete success (mainly due to so many people showing up), but did lead to further experiments with children and improvisers as part of the "Kinder und Künst" program under the direction of Germany's Council on the Arts.

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